For decades the writer Esther de Waal lived in the countryside of her beloved Welsh Marches. Now she’s now moved to a retirement complex in Oxford and it’s clear that the experience has been a sometimes painful challenge, as well as ultimately rewarding.
As you might expect from someone who has written extensively about Benedictine and Celtic spirituality, she has drawn heavily on both to come to terms with letting go of so much that’s familiar and well-loved.
The White Stone: The art of letting go (Canterbury Press, 2021) was largely written during lockdown and is the author’s way of ‘exploring my feelings, making sense of my situation.’ She writes in the opening pages:
‘We all have to face up to the process of letting go at intervals throughout our lives, and for everyone that response will be different. I feel what I have achieved amounts to little more than hints and glimpses into a vast and vital topic. I hope that this book may encourage others to dialogue with what I have written here.’
Each chapter starts with a photograph of flowers, trees and natural settings which have meant so much to her as she embarks on this new stage of life in a city. Part of her ritual of leaving her old home was to take a walk from place to place, akin to progressing through the stations of the cross. She visited for the final time, along her customary walking routes and her own garden, key points where she said a conscious farewell to trees and views that have been places of solace for her. She allowed precious memories to surface of family life and her hopes for the phase to come.
Getting used to her new apartment has taken time and spiritual effort. She wrestles with the concept of home. Recalling that the first Benedictine monastic vow is to ‘stability’, she muses:
‘We can think of stability as sitting still, in the confidence that God in Christ sits still with us. Nothing is simpler and yet more profound than this: to remain in one place until whatever God has in store for us emerges. I am now in a new place and this applies to me – to stay still, trying to root myself here and simply wait.’
When I was a busy working mother with young children (writes Debbie Thrower), I remember how Esther de Waal’s book Seeking God: The way of St Benedict (Canterbury Press, 1999) spoke to me powerfully of how to find peace in the midst of busyness. Now she is a wise guide to a more contemplative stage of life and dealing with the rigours of trying to sit lightly with people, possessions and places which have meant so much to us.
Don’t be under any allusion that she sees the later years as a period in which to run away from life. Far from it. She wonders whether, daily, she shouldn’t be asking herself: ‘Am I becoming a more loving person? St Benedict wanted the monks he was addressing to take part willingly in a dynamic movement centred upon Christ. Are you hastening towards your heavenly home? There is urgency in the words he chooses, he is telling me to run not walk.’
Esther de Waal is a sage voice at a time when many feel anxious and overwhelmed at the decisions life requires of them; whether it’s a case of downsizing to a compact living space, or resolutely staying put where we have long made our home. Her emphasis on what being loving calls us to be, and do, will resonate with many in the autumn and, indeed, winter of our lives.